The Fall Dir. Tarsem Singh

[Googly Films; 2008]

There is more than one kind of beauty. There's beauty that seduces, that gently works its charms, that perfumes the air with a warm, inviting glow. Some beauty is calming, restful, and serene. There is beauty that is cold, imperious, disdainful of admirers, self-sufficient in its icy sheen -- this is an unnerving beauty, almost frightening in its effect. There is hidden beauty, too, a beauty that requires effort to uncover but rewards the patient connoisseur with levels of depth and dimensions of subtlety that can't be found in other, more prosaic forms. Beauty can be exultant; it can be holy; it can be a window unto the Divine itself.

And then there is the beauty of The Fall, the new film by Tarsem Singh. It is an ugly thing, this beauty – technically proficient, mechanically realized, dazzling sometimes, but for the most part uninspired. A self-important beauty, bold, boring, and ultimately numbing. Bleh.

The Fall is Singh’s second film, and it comes eight years after 2000’s The Cell, a horror tale starring Jennifer Lopez, notable for its wild set designs and costumes, whose principle setting (the interior mental realm of an insane murderer) allowed the director free reign to indulge his every surrealistic fancy and Grand Guignol whim. I liked it. The plot was pedestrian, the acting atrocious, but it powered through on wings of sheer visual bravura. Not so The Fall.

Shot over the span of several years in 18 (!) different countries, the film, based on an obscure Bulgarian movie, stars Lee Pace as Roy Walker, a silent-era stuntman convalescing in a Hollywood hospital after a fall that has left him paralyzed. While there, he meets five-year-old Alexandria, played with suitable naiveté by newcomer Cantinca Untaru. Wishing to die, Roy ensnares Alexandria in his hideously selfish plot: like some reverse Scheherazade, he will dole out episodes of an increasingly ridiculous action/adventure fantasy tale if Alexandria will steal for him the morphine pills needed to achieve his suicide. And so the film flips back and forth from reality to fantasy, as Roy (with the help of Alexandria’s imagination) weaves characters from the outside world into his allegorical tale of intrigue and revenge.

The Black Bandit (Pace) joins together with the mysterious, mustachioed Indian (Jeetu Verma), Italian explosives expert Luigi (Robin Smith), ex-slave Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), mud-encrusted Mystic (Julian Bleach), and, for some reason, an outrageously-attired Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) on a quest to vanquish the insidious Governor Odious (Daniel Caltigirone), who has incurred the undying wrath of each and every member of the group. (And there was a monkey. I forgot the monkey.) Flitting from one picture postcard locale to the next (including India, Chile, Namibia, Turkey, Prague and the Maldives) the team fights and schemes but mostly just poses prettily in front of various breathtaking vistas. It should be a rousing adventure, yet all this beauty quickly fries the brain. Mostly, the problem is one of contrast. There is none. Singh simply cannot modulate his palette, setting his camera lens for “epic grandeur” and never pulling back. After a while (a very short while), this audience member at least was rendered incapable of caring a whit about what happened in the fantasy half of the picture. I just couldn't see the point in emotionally investing myself in what amounted to a protracted fashion shoot.

Meanwhile, back in the hospital, Roy continues to manipulate poor Alexandria into unwittingly helping to kill the man she has come to love. You see, our man Roy is depressed because his lady-love has left him for the very actor he was injured while doubling for. Oh, the bitter irony! Oh, the heartrending tragedy of it all! Oh, I couldn’t give a toss, because the only character in the film with any life and vitality whatsoever is the non-actor Untaru, whom Singh apparently gave free improvisational reign, allowing her natural five-year-old charms to shine. The sole spark of life in this overly mannered test-reel of a film Cantinca Untaru (say that name!) is a delight.

An overly long film, The Fall proceeds to a scene I will not divulge, but which I found sickeningly cruel and torturous in its emotional manipulations of Alexandria at the hands of Roy. By this point, I had lost all interest in the film and was desperately awaiting its conclusion, which, of course, was suitably cathartic and “uplifting.” Singh ends the picture with a montage of silent film clips, scenes of cinematic derring-do from the likes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. Presumably intended as a paean to the joys and energy of early cinema, the montage only serves to cast Singh in a dim light, negatively contrasting his directorial abilities with the works of geniuses infinitely more talented than he.

There are many kinds of beauty, beauty all around, beauty right now outside your door. Go, my friend, go bathe in the natural beauty of Springtime. But skip The Fall.

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